Southpaw Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, Oona Laurence. Directed by Antoine Fuqua. Rated R. Opens Friday.
Southpaw begins with its protagonist, boxer Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) on top of the world: He’s the undefeated world champion, having just successfully defended his title again, and he lives in a giant mansion with his beautiful wife and childhood sweetheart Maureen (Rachel McAdams) and loving daughter Leila (Oona Laurence). The movie then spends 45 minutes tearing Billy down, beginning with his wife’s accidental shooting death as a result of a fight he himself started. Soon, he’s lost his title, his boxing license, his house, his cars, his money and even custody of his daughter. Luckily he’s now in a great position to be the main character in an underdog sports drama.
So he teams up with a grizzled but wise boxing coach named Tick (Forest Whitaker), with whom he first butts heads but soon comes to respect, and he’s on the road to redemption. The script by Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter is full of heavy-handed symbolism (come on, the main character’s name is Hope), and its inspirational arc is predictable and contrived. Director Antoine Fuqua doesn’t exactly have a light touch, and he hammers home every clichéd plot development, making the ridiculous lows of the first half and the ridiculous comeback of the second half equally melodramatic.
Gyllenhaal has made strong impressions in unconventional roles recently, but while he clearly bulked up for his role as Billy, his performance is mumbly and sluggish, without the depth to sell Billy’s extreme emotional fluctuations. The direction and the performances end up pounding the audience as hard as Billy in his early fights, and there isn’t much relief in his eventual drawn-out triumph. Even the boxing sequences are mostly unremarkable, a few exciting POV shots aside.
The whole movie is unremarkable, really, from its gritty back story for Billy (raised in foster care, in and out of prison) to its portrayal of the corrupt, money-hungry world of boxing (embodied in Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson’s role as Billy’s unscrupulous manager/promoter). Fuqua and Sutter do little to distinguish Southpaw from other boxing movies going back decades, and they don’t have the excuse of telling a true story to fall back on, either. Billy’s final match is tailor-made to inspire cheers from the audience, but that applause is as empty as everything that’s come before it.